Saturday, January 15, 2011

One Word At A Time

A huge shout out to say Thank You! To the Romance Magicians for having me here today. It’s a pleasure swing through and share my writing process (sounds so professional, doesn’t it?). Mary suggested I share how I “get the book done.” Well, it’s simple...

One word at a time.

Okay, maybe not that simple. But, getting the story down, word by sometimes painful word, is an absolute must. You can research and outline and write notes and character sketches. You can hammer out turning points, black moments and internal and external goals. All of those can help get the story done.

But you still have to write the story one word at a time.

Now, remembering that everyone’s process is different, here’s how I go about getting those words written:

1. Because I write romance, I start with a hero and heroine who have a solid reason not to trust each other. In Lying Eyes, Heroine is a jeweler whose missing father is accused of stealing gems. Hero is an undercover cop portraying a petty crook who thinks she might be helping her father. Both want to find the father, but they can’t trust each other with the whole truth about themselves.

2. I identify setting, key secondary characters (including villain), and any important plot elements. In Lying Eyes, I knew I needed the Father, the sisters, the villains, the Russians, the rabbit, and I needed something unique for my stolen gems.

3. At this point, I usually try to write a few opening scenes to get a feel for the characters. Generally, I have a vision of how the hero/heroine meet. But I can easily spend a month or more hammering out the first 30-50 pages of the story, getting the right tone, figuring out what to reveal and what to hold back.

Mind you, there’s no guarantee once I’ve written these 50 pages that I know *exactly* how the rest of the story will unfold. I’m not a true plotter. So, about this time, I mull the story around in my head.

4. During the mulling process, any scenes or snippets of dialogue that come to me, I write down. This is important to my process. I have a background in acting and stage management, so I tend to hear my characters’ dialogue as if I were listening to a scene being played out. I will sometimes draft entire scenes of just the dialogue, then go back afterward to add in thoughts and actions (and smooth out the formatting!). Soon, scenes start to fall into order.

5. Once I have a few scenes in mind, I sit down and draft them. Generally, but not always, in order. No matter how stinky, I force myself through that first draft. Sometimes I have to rearrange scenes. Or cut them. Or rewrite them from a different POV. Or change the setting. That’s not a time waste; that’s revision. Occasionally, I get a scene right the first time, and I celebrate.

6. Inevitably, a few times in the process, I’ll hit a wall. This isn’t writers
block. This is me, literally, not having a clue what happens next in the story. Like I said, I’m not a true plotter. I may see scenes later in the book, but I may not know how to get there. At this point, I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. Or I walk around my living room muttering to myself. The most productive thing, however, is when I go back and reread however much of the story I’ve written from the beginning. Without fail, every time I faltered then went back and reread, I found I’d planted something in the story that I could now use that made perfect sense. Never doubt your subconscious.

7. I repeat this process, writing 3-5 chapters at a time until the book is done. This is not to say that I don’t have printouts of online research or descriptions of my characters, or spreadsheets with the timeline. But all those notes served to get me back in the chair writing one word at a time on the story.

Once the book or a set of scenes is drafted, I send it to my critique partners. For Lying Eyes, I used three of them. Very different reading tastes: one logical, one romance-oriented, one family-oriented. They’d get me feedback and I tweaked those scenes while I also continued to write forward.

At the end of this process, I offered the finished book out to a dozen beta readers. These were writers I asked to simply read the book and give me their general impressions. Did they get lost anywhere? Did the characters make sense? Did the story drag in spots? If three or more readers pointed to the same thing, I took a serious look at it. One beta reader recommended I change how an important secret is revealed—it was a huge improvement!

Lying Eyes took me a little over five months to write. Mind you, I’d written the first 30 pages two years before but then put the story aside to work on other projects. The structure, the plot, the flow of scenes—none of that changed after the book was contracted, except that my editor asked me to add two scenes near the end.

Of course, the hardest part about the process, is that after the final stages of revisions and edits—when you can see the whole puzzle picture of your story laid out while you fit in the final pieces—you have to move on to another story. Then you start the process all over again from conceiving the idea to writing the whole story out one word at a time.

Amy Atwell worked in professional theater for 15 years before turning from the stage to the page to write fiction. She now gives her imagination free rein in both contemporary and historical stories that combine adventure and romance. Her debut romantic suspense, Lying Eyes, is now available from Carina Press, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. When not writing, Amy runs the WritingGIAM online community for goal-oriented writers. An Ohio native, Amy has lived all across the country and now resides on a barrier island in Florida with her husband and two Russian Blues. Visit her online at her, What’s The Story? and Magical Musings blogs, Facebook, Twitter and/or GoodReads.


Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks for doing this interview Amy. It's great to see another process and compare. I like #7 and used it in my first book (which I didn't realize I like to write like that until I wrote my second book and didn't do it.) Ah the life of a writer.

Best of luck with your endeavors.

M.V.Freeman said...

I'm so glad you came by. I am always fascinated by how writers "write" the stories they love.

Your process interests me--and to me you write very quickly. How long do your stories typically run?

Do you have many rewrites? I know you mention that you have to work with the scenes a bit at a time, but how about the full document?

I admire that you write in dialogue..that is the toughest for me.

But ultimately like you said--you write the story one word at a time!

Nicki Salcedo said...

Oh, Amy. I admire you and you work ethic. Thank you for keeping so many of us on track with our writing. Great advice in this post!

Amy Atwell said...


Anne, interestingly, one of my CPs and I discovered we did this same thing. We would write 3-5 chapters, then stop, review, regroup, sometimes revise, plan and plot, then continue writing forward into the story. It meant that by the time we reached The End, we had much less revision to do.

Mary--thanks for inviting me today! My stories are long. 90-100,000 words. Lying Eyes started out at 99K, but when I added the two scenes, it took the book to 103K. Really long by today's standards. But I'm so grateful Carina Press didn't ask me to cut the length. There's a lot going on in this story and 10 POV characters. It's suspense and mystery and romance and it sets the stage for a whole series.

Rewrites... well, yes. My earlier books (the ones not yet published) I have multiple drafts. Sometimes huge changes in drafts. One book, I have 9 different drafts on my computer--and it's still not quite right. My first historical had 3 very distinct generations of drafts. Major changes that were driven by adding a character or changing a timeline or finally digging fully into my hero's internal conflict. I was still cutting my teeth on craft and my process. I like to think I have a handle on it. We'll see how the next two books go!

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much for sharing your writing process, Amy! It gives me hope, as I am not a plotter either. It's great to hear about how you have made your process successful.

Callie James said...

Thanks for stopping by, Amy! Always fun to learn another writer's process.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Thanks for the peek inside your process, Amy. I've been slowly moving from pantser to some kind of hybrid semi-plotter, so I'm always interested in process.

I've finally learned that I have to do some "pre-writing" to get to know my characters and the direction of their story before I can even create a basic outline.

Your story sounds great. Good luck!

Christine said...

Wow, this was a great interview. I love your process. The walking around the room and muttering is often used here as well. I'm so happy for you that the book is published. Great cover!!


Lexi said...

Congrats on your book, Amy. I am always interested to learn how other writers approach writing. I find it comforting to know there's no 'right' way, just the way that works for you. Your approach sounds a lot like mine. I call myself a plotser, because I usually have the characters in mind and various plot points but wing it from there. Here's wishing you continued success!

Angel said...

Very interesting to read, Amy! Process is so unique and ever changing. I find myself more often stopping after those first 50 pages and regrouping -- did I get the characters right? the tone? do I know where I'm going? etc. So glad I'm not the only one. :)

Congratulations on publishing. The cover is awesome!


Amy Atwell said...

Wow--thanks to all the lovely people who've stopped by. You know, it occurs to me that "process" can be organic to an author, and I also think it can be organic to each book. So, two books won't necessarily write themselves the same way. (As if there were such a thing as a self-writing book--wouldn't THAT be bliss?).

But I think where Lying Eyes became a real departure for me was that I could see and hear the scenes in my head almost as if I were watching television. I stopped worrying about controlling what the characters were saying and doing and simply tried to take notes as fast as I could. Then I filled in to try to describe what I'd seen/heard in my head.

This made the book very episodic. Many of the scenes are shorter than I usually write, and I jumped back and forth between groups of characters. I knew when I was writing it that it didn't fit the standard definition of romantic suspense, but I stopped worrying and just the book be what it was.

Mind you--it didn't sell at first. But it did sell at last, and I wouldn't change a thing about how it worked out.

Amy Atwell said...

I'm reading through the comments again. Like many of you, I'm not a strict plotter. I have some specific scenes I know I want to include, but not a clear outline. And I used to do a lot of planning exercises--interviewing my characters, filling out info sheets to analyze each scene and many, many more. The problem --and I experience the same thing with research--is that my brain gets into that analytical or fact gathering mode and I fall right out of the story. So I have to constantly keep challenging myself to add words to the master document.

I should have asked: do you work in multiple documents for different scenes/chapters? Or do you have one document for the whole book? Or do you use a project software like Scrivener or WriteWayPro?

Gwen Hernandez said...

Amy, I use Scrivener. It's the only way I can keep all of my random scenes, notes, photos, research, character sheets, and other prewriting scribbles organized.

It frees me up to write whichever scene strikes me and then move them around as needed. Not sure how I ever wrote without a program like it.

Do you use writing software, or a word processor?

Louisa Cornell said...

Hello, Amy !! What a great interview! And I LOVE reading about your process !

I tend to write in a more linear fashion, but I do have scenes and dialogue that come to me out of the blue. I jot those down as they come to me and incorporate them into the story as I reach the place I feel they need to go.

I'm in the process of doing a rewrite of my third novel and it is interesting to take it apart and go over it a section at the time, deciding what stays - what goes - and what needs new material to make it work.

And by the way LYING EYES is FANTASTIC !!! Anyone who hasn't read it needs to get it in your hot little hands ASAP !! I loved it!

Amy Atwell said...

Morning, Louisa. Thanks for swinging by. I'm so pleased you enjoyed Lying Eyes!

Like you, I work in a mostly linear fashion. Sometimes that means I have to go back to an earlier chapter and piece in something I've thought of later in the book. It's certainly easier to do a thorough revision once I have a first draft written from beginning to end. And I always have to go back through for a final continuity check. Clothing was my bane in Lying Eyes. It's a very compressed timeline, and I had to keep asking myself whether various characters had had time or the opportunity to change clothes or if they were still wearing the same outfit as the previous scene. Yes, I created a spreadsheet!

Amy Atwell said...


I'm a huge fan of Scrivener, but I find I'm using it more as an organizational tool for research rather than a strict drafting tool. I work in one long MS Word document for my wip. If I decide I'm about to embark on significant changes, I Save As a new draft. Draft 1A, 1B, or 2A (when the changes are *really* big, I go to a new number). I start drafting a bunch of scenes to get a sense of where chapter breaks should fall. And once I build up more than 30 pages, I usually go back and designate my scenes with a short hand number: 1.1 for chapter 1, scene 1. This way, I can keep a cheat sheet of scenes, and I can use the Find command to take me to any of those numeric designations. Makes for quick easy access.

But I'm keeping character and research notes in Scrivener, and I even have index cards of the scenes. Makes it easier for me to picture what happens if I rearrange the order of certain things. I need to upgrade, as I hear the new version has better export and formatting features.

Cari Hislop said...

It was lovely to hear your work process! I work in a smiliar fashion, rewriting as I write and letting the characters tell the story with the odd future scene to taunt me.

My stories seem pre-formed in some dusty corner of my brain and as they're born onto the page I can feel when they're right or wrong (if I take time to listen to my feelings before I've written myself into a corner and upset all my characters).

I recently had to delete four excellent chapters of a story. I didn't want to delete them. I dug in my heels and refused for half a year, but as I was shoving the story forward a neon sign in my brain started flashing the words, 'Too Long!'. I couldn't ignore that. The story got its way in the end. I just know my characters threw a party and had a 'slag off the author' as main entertainment! I think my characters would pack their trunks and emigrate to a more sensible writer if they could!

For anyone who hasn't read Lying Eyes yet, it's funny, clever and smooooothe! I can't wait to read the next installment! :)

Ted H said...

It's always interesting to hear, or read about, a published author's writing process. Thank you for posting and best wishes in your future endeavours.